At our dojo’s 30th anniversary shindig earlier this month, Shuseki Shihan Paul and his senior black belts — which includes Kyoshi Gustavo, Sensei Dorian, Sensei Charles, and myself — performed a sai kata called Chatan Yara No Sai. It’s a very old kata — Chatan Yara was a martial artist who lived in the 17th and 18th centuries — and very nifty. Learning it over the past year has been a great privilege. And here it is for y’all to see…..
2004 was quite the year for me. I turned 35, my first original novel came out (that was the year Simon & Schuster published Dragon Precinct in mass-market), I went on tour with Laura Anne Gilman up both coasts, I got the assignment to novelize Serenity (which made this Browncoat very happy), the “A Time to…” series of Star Trek: The Next Generation novels came out, which I was heavily involved in both as a writer and as an editor/continuity cop, culminating in my concluding volume of the nine-book series A Time for War, a Time for Peace.
And also on 16 September 2004, I walked into a karate dojo because my body was failing me.
I’ve told this story a thousand times before: I hit 35 and the warranty ran out. Everything stopped working, and on the advice of medical professionals, I decided to start exercising.
Prior to walking into the dojo eighteen years ago, the only thing I ever exercised was my futility. That first day was horrid, as I didn’t do anything right and was in dozens of kinds of pain and exhausted after that grueling hour. Eighteen years later, I still can’t touch my toes without bending my knees, but despite starting from 35 years of indolence, I’m still in pretty good shape.
And, oh yeah, I’m a fourth-degree black belt. Who’da thunk?
Being a karateka has changed my life in a billion ways, every single one of them for the better. I’m happier, I’m healthier, I’m stronger both physically and mentally, and, as an added bonus, I’ve added “teacher” to my lengthy list of Things I Do. Really, as great as the physical stuff is — and as nice as it is to be able to lift heavy things — the best thing that’s come out of these eighteen years is becoming and developing myself as a teacher. The satisfaction and joy I get out of imparting karate to kids and adults is one of the greatest feelings in the universe.
So happy anniversary (a little late — I got sick after Dragon Con and there was FanX, plus I’ve been consumed by writing Phoenix Precinct and promoting the Kickstarters for that and Double Trouble) to my karate career, which is now old enough to vote!
If you missed it last Wednesday, fear not! The latest episode of Russ’s Rockin’ Rollercoaster has been archived on the Tube of You!
Host Russ Colchamiro has me (martial arts), Teel James Glenn (stunt work and stage combat), and Mary Fan (circus performing on silks) talking about how these very physical activities affect our writing and our lives.
Check it out!
On Wednesday the 20th of April at 8pm Eastern time, Russ’s Rockin’ Rollercoaster will feature host Russ Colchamiro talking to fellow authors Teel James Glenn (stage combat), Mary Fan (circus performing), and me, Keith R.A. DeCandido (martial arts), discussing how these physical activities inform our writing.
Tickets are free, but you have to register ahead of time to get the Zoom link and participate in the Q&A if you so choose. Click here to reserve a spot. The talk will later be archived on the Tube of You if you can’t make it live next Wednesday.
Hope to see folks there!
Last night, I finished my second Zorro story. My first one, “Letter from Guadalajara,” was published in 2011 in More Tales of Zorro, edited by the late great Richard Dean Starr, and is one of my favorite works in my entire bibliography.
This second one is “A Lovely View,” and — assuming Zorro Productions approves what I wrote over the last few days — it will be published in Bold Venture Press‘s anthology of Zorro stories, tentatively titled Zorro’s Exploits, which will be out in June of this year. BVP has done a whole mess of Zorro stuff, and I hope this story will lead to more, as both the Fox and his foe Capitán Monastario are tremendous fun to write.
Finishing the story is the start of a very busy week for me. Shuseki Shihan is taking a one-week vacation, so teaching karate this week is primarily falling to Sensei Charles and I, as well as Kyoshi Gustavo. I’ll be assisting Sensei Charles tonight, tomorrow night, and Thursday night, and I’m on my own Monday. (Sensei Charles is on his own Saturday, as I’ll be at HELIOsphere…) This is on top of my afterschool program on Wednesday afternoon, not to mention three private lessons I’m teaching this week.
On the writing front, there’s my review of this week’s Picard, my overview of the fourth season of Discovery, I’ve gotta write some stuff for my Patreon, I have to revise a proposal, and I’ve got a bunch more short stories to write, and I need to pick one to start this week. Bleeeeeeeeeeeee….
Plus I’m doing a panel on Thursday — the next Quarantine Panel on Dragon Con’s American Sci-Fi Classics Track is about Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a movie that is thirty years old, believe it or not. Check it out live on the Tube of You or the Book of Face Thursday at 9pm Eastern time.
On the personal front, there’s been some medical craziness with my parents (they’re in their 70s, this happens), but so far it’s been in the not-as-bad-as-we-feared category. And Wrenn’s job has been absolutely bonkers, but there’s an endpoint to it — it’s a January-April gig — and she has had some really good interviews for a full-time position that would be amazing if it happens. She’s got a followup interview tomorrow, so please keep those fingers crossed, those prayer hamsters spinning, or whatever.
How’s your Tuesday?
The fourth season of Cobra Kai has dropped on Netflix, and I do plan to review that fourth season for my Patreon. In the meantime, here are the reviews of the show I wrote in September 2020 (of seasons one and two) and July 2021 (of season three) on my Patreon. If you support me at $5/month, you get anywhere between one and five TV reviews per month, as well as monthly movie reviews, and regular cat pictures. And if you go higher, you get additional stuff like weekly excerpts from my works in progress ($7/month), monthly vignettes featuring my original characters ($10/month), and first looks at my first drafts ($20/ month). Check it out!
I saw The Karate Kid back when it was first released in the 1980s, but it was never a particular favorite—nor was it not a favorite, as it were, it was just a movie I saw. I wasn’t into martial arts at the time, and mostly I wanted to see it for Pat Morita, whom I’d loved on Happy Days.
I’d been afraid to watch the movie again after I started training in karate in 2004, as I worried that the portrayal of karate would be lacking. But recently, I watched the movie again with a dear friend, and I needn’t have worried. The dichotomy between the defense-and-self-improvement-based Okinawan karate taught by Mr. Miyagi and the beat-the-shit-out-of-everyone American karate style taught by Kreese in Cobra Kai is one that exists in the martial arts world still. There are still, sadly, martial arts masters like Kreese who only want to train little warriors to beat up people they don’t like—but, luckily, there are a lot more like Miyagi (including the guy who runs my dojo).
And it’s gotten a lovely update in the Cobra Kai series.
So many factors went into creating this series, which just got picked up by Netflix after being the only real success on YouTube’s attempt to have original programming, and even then it got a tiny audience. Now, though, it’s a bonafide hit, and it’s in part because it takes up some threads that have been the subject of think pieces and internet memes and jokes on TV series for years. One is whether or not Daniel LaRusso’s infamous crane kick in the climax of the first film was actually legal. And the other is best exemplified by the running gag on How I Met Your Mother of Neil Patrick Harris’s Barney Stinson character insisting that Johnny Lawrence was the hero of the movie and LaRusso the villain. William Zabka and Ralph Macchio both appeared as themselves on HIMYM, with Zabka continuing to appear several more times.
The creators of Cobra Kai—Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg—have run with that notion, and given us Johnny and Daniel thirty-five years later as middle-aged men who still hold a grudge with each other. Daniel is living a successful life as the owner of several car dealerships in the Valley, using his fame as the winner of the karate tournament as part of his marketing. (“Chopping” prices and the like, plus he gives every customer a bonsai tree like the ones Miyagi had.) Meanwhile, Johnny is a down-on-his-luck contractor barely eking out a living while living in a shithole in Reseda.
First off, this is a deliberate reversal of their positions in The Karate Kid, where Daniel was the poor kid in Reseda and Johnny was one of the rich kids. We find out over the course of Cobra Kai that Johnny’s wealth came from his stepfather, from whom he’s estranged since his mother died (though the cantankerous old bastard—played beautifully by the great Ed Asner—still helps him financially, guilting him the entire time).
William Zabka does amazing work here, playing a guy who doesn’t have much of anything in life, and who also hasn’t really paid attention to the world since high school. He’s never owned a computer, his cell phone is a cheap flip-phone, and he still has the same car he had in high school. He’s also, it should be pointed out, a flaming asshole, still. Part of that is bitterness, but part of it really is just that he’s an asshole, seen right off when he first encounters Miguel, who lives in the same apartment complex, and Johnny’s first response is, “Great, more immigrants.” Miguel confusedly points out that they moved from Riverside.
Having said that, Johnny also does get better as the series goes on. When Miguel is beaten up by his classmates outside a bodega, Johnny defends him, and Miguel asks Johnny to train him how to fight. This leads to Johnny restarting Cobra Kai.
As the season progresses, we get lots of different threads, all of which emanate outward from two events. One is Johnny’s decision to train Miguel and resurrect Cobra Kai. The other is when teenagers who are too busy gossiping and looking at their phones accidentally hit Johnny’s car. It’s towed to one of Daniel’s dealerships, which is what brings the two together for the first time since The Karate Kid Part 2.
For all that the spine of this series is the rivalry between Daniel and Johnny that goes all the way back to that fateful All-Valley Karate Championship at the climax of the first movie, this is truly a story about teenagers trying to figure out their place in life. One of the reasons why The Karate Kid was so compelling is that it was about a kid who was an outsider, a lower-middle-class Italian-American kid from New Jersey trying to find his way in a sea of rich blond kids.
Cobra Kai kicks that up a notch. Most of our main characters are outsiders of some sort, starting with Miguel, who is the target of bullies and falls in with a couple of social outcasts: Demetri and Eli. Meanwhile, we have Daniel’s daughter Samantha, who used to be the nerdy smart kid, but who has fallen in with the other traditionally pretty white girls, which has done damage to her friendship with her friend Aisha, who’s overweight and African American. Samantha is also dating Kyler, who is one of the bullies who beat up Miguel (and was then beat up by Johnny).
One of the most important aspects of martial arts is self-improvement. While the original Cobra Kai was all about “no mercy” and all that, and Johnny still expresses that credo, what Asian martial arts truly are meant to be about is improving oneself through discipline and sweat. What’s fun to watch in this series is how many people’s lives are generally improved by studying martial arts, whether it’s Johnny’s revived Cobra Kai or Daniel’s revived Miyagi-Do.
In response to Cobra Kai’s resurgence, and initially with only two students, one of whom is his daughter Sam, Daniel dusts off Miyagi’s house and garden where he trained Daniel back in the day and turns it into a Miyago-Do dojo.
How much self-improvement goes on varies from person to person. Miguel becomes more confident and throws off the shackles of being bullied. But Eli turns into a complete shitheel, becoming the very bully he used to live in fear of. Demetri tries to join Cobra Kai to be with Miguel and Eli, but he can’t handle the brutality of it, and instead joins Miyagi-Do—and even there, he struggles. Aisha, tired of being the butt of jokes by the popular set, joins Cobra Kai, and it does wonders for her.
One of the truisms of martial arts is that the style matters much less than the teacher. If your teacher is good, then the style is less important—and if your teacher sucks, same thing. One of the fascinating things to watch over the two seasons of Cobra Kai is watching Johnny’s journey from being the exact same kind of dick to his students that Kreese was in the movies to becoming something much closer to Miyagi and Daniel.
But then the first season ends with Kreese himself showing up, and everything gets thrown into flux, as Johnny has moved past Kreese’s teachings—but he also feels beholden to Kreese. So he gives him a chance, makes him his equal in the dojo—a move he will regret, as Kreese isn’t just a bastard, he’s also a fraud. (I love that it’s Johnny’s students who realize that his stories of black ops missions in Kosovo are nonsense, as he can’t even get the geography right.)
What’s frustrating—deliberately, mind you, that’s the story choice made for good reason—is that there’s no reason for Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do to be in such fierce competition with each other. But Daniel and Johnny are so invested in the rivalry that between them that defined that first movie that it warps everything. Daniel is so revolted by the idea of Cobra Kai being revived that he revives Miyagi-Do alongside it as competition. And that three-decade-old rivalry continues to warp and mess with their lives, and infect the students in their care. Several friendships that are shown as being deep-seated at the start of the series wind up being sundered by the rift between Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do.
Though it’s not the only deep-seated loathing that affects the characters. Johnny’s messed-up life between the movies and the show includes a busted marriage that produced a kid. Said kid, Robby, is a chronic fuckup and talented thief who decides to join Miyagi-Do for the express purpose of pissing off the father who hasn’t been a part of his life in any meaningful way. But he actually finds serenity and happiness (and eventually a girlfriend) at Miyagi-Do and it becomes more important to him than annoying his old man. Especially since his mother isn’t much of a prize, either, and Daniel and his wife Amanda become his surrogate parents, to Johnny chagrin—but, to some extent, to his gratitude as well. He knows he’s been a terrible father, and he’s grateful that Robby is getting some kind of chance. But Robby is still a fuckup at heart, and that has consequences.
The show is filled with tons of callbacks to the movies, both subtle and gross, and my favorite is that Miyagi’s gravestone includes a mention that he served in the 442nd Infantry Regiment. That was the Army regiment created specifically for Japanese-American soldiers, many of whom had been interred in camps. I had honestly completely forgotten about that aspect of Miyagi’s backstory over the years, and I loved that it was on his grave.
There are two particular issues with the two seasons to date that I find maddening, one understandable, the other less so.
The first is that there is simply no way, none, that an under-18 karate championship would do bare-knuckle fighting. In the 1980s, things were looser, but in the 2010s? There is absolutely no way that they would be doing competition fighting without any kind of protective gear. They’d be wearing gloves, foot protection, headgear, and possibly shin and knee guards.
The other is the big-ass school fight that takes up most of the final episode of season two, appropriately titled “No Mercy.” The whole thing starts when one of the Cobra Kai students, Tory, calls out Samantha and challenges her in the middle of announcements. The fight between the two of them starts in the hallway, moves to the staircase, sucks both Miguel and Robby in, and then all the Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do students.
Let me be blunt: THIS WOULD NEVER EVER HAPPEN. Tory’s interruption of the announcements would start this, but it would also end it, because there would be an adult supervising the announcements who would immediately call school security and hold her. Even if she got away from there, there’s no way that there would be no adult presence near any of the kids after that announcement like there is. The fight goes on for four minutes before we see a single adult, and it would never ever take that long, especially not with Tory’s very public calling out. It’s not even remotely believable or convincing—which is frustrating, because from a story perspective, the fight is brilliant. It’s the catharsis that had been building all season, and nobody gets out of the fight unscathed—some more than others, of course. The planned season three is likely to be all about the consequence of this brutal battle—but, again, the battle should never have happened.
The acting in this series is beyond excellent. Truly, everyone is superb, but I want to single out Xolo Maridueña as Miguel, who brings a heart and soul to the proceedings. He’s the same guy as Daniel was in the movies, truly, but he finds Johnny instead of Miyagi. But he also has a good effect on Johnny, as Miguel’s influence changes Johnny for the better—and changes Cobra Kai as well.
Plus, of course, there’s Ralph Macchio and William Zabka, who do such an amazing job of giving us the middle-aged versions of the two kids we met thirty-five years ago. Zabka in particular does amazing work here, turning Johnny into a most compelling antihero. Points also to the producers for bringing back some folks from the movies, including Randee Heller as Daniel’s mother, and best of all, Ron Thomas, Rob Garrison, and Tony O’Dell all reprising their roles as Johnny’s Cobra Kai buddies from the movies. The episode in which those three appear, “Take a Right,” is one of the series’ best.
The show dives into melodrama a bit much, but it’s still, at heart, a story about high school and coming of age, and about how teenagers deal with all the changes that come with adolescence. Most of all, it shows how toxic those issues can be if you let them fester for three-and-a-half decades.
This is a strong, powerful sequel to a delightful series of movies, and I strongly recommend it.
Cobra Kai is available on Netflix.
Back when I reviewed the first two seasons of Cobra Kai, I figured that the main theme would be the fallout from the school fight in “No Mercy,” the second-season finale. In that, I was right, and indeed the entire season is pretty much the consequences of that fight.
The biggest consequence, of course, is Miguel Diaz, paralyzed after falling over the staircase. His journey back to being able to walk provides a major throughline of the season. But we’ve also got Sam LaRusso suffering PTSD after her fight with Tory and struggling to even get back to training, and also folding any time she’s in any kind of confrontation. We’ve got Danny LaRusso losing a major client due to his association with the fight. We’ve got the elimination of the All-Valley Tournament by the city council (though it is restored by the end of the season, and while pleas by Danny, Johnny Lawrence, and John Kreese fall of deaf ears, it is the heartfelt words of Miguel and Sam that convince them). We’ve got Robby on the run and rejecting both his father figures of Danny and Johnny, eventually finding himself under Kreese’s tutelage. We’ve got Johnny and Danny trying to team up to find Robby, becoming estranged again, but then coming together in the end. And we’ve got Aisha Robinson transferring off to another school (which means that Nichole Brown isn’t in season three).
I want to address that last thing, because it’s a major flaw in the season. Allegedly, it was a producer-based decision to write Aisha out for season three, and it’s a bad look for the show. There are damn few non-traditionally pretty people on television in general, and Aisha is one of the best stories in Cobra Kai‘s first two seasons, and to just dump her off is a disservice to that storyline and to the show.
Still, the season in general works very well, partly because there are several different things happening here that individually wouldn’t make for as strong a series, but they combine nicely.
The relationships among the teenagers shift and change in interesting ways. Robby, after being responsible for Miguel’s injury, goes over to the dark side, going into juvie and winding up in Kreese’s dojo. Sam and Miguel wind up renewing their relationship. Several Cobra Kai students are kicked out by an unforgiving Kreese for not being tough enough.
Most interestingly, Eli/Hawk goes through a much-needed transformation. He finally comes to realize that he’s turned into exactly the type of asshole who used to torment him when he was a full-time nerd. By season’s end, he’s repaired his friendship with Demitri and left Kreese.
Johnny goes through the second-most crap this season (Miguel gets the grand prize, obviously), as he loses Cobra Kai to Kreese, struggles to rebuild his mentor relationship with Miguel, as well as his romantic relationship with Miguel’s mother, struggles (and fails, unlike with the Diazes) to repair his relationship with his son, is reunited with a former love (more on that in a minute), and finally decides to start over as Eagle Fang Karate.
Danny has his own issues to go through, and while we get lots of adolescent angst with the various teenagers, we also get a lot of themes from the Karate Kidmovies brought forward. A big one is Danny going to Japan, mainly to try to recover the contract with the car manufacturer that is his biggest client, but also to revisit Mr. Miyagi’s home village in Okinawa. There he is reunited with three characters from The Karate Kid Part II, has an epiphany, and gets the client back. This is more than a little melodramatic—though Tamlyn Tomita is as radiant as ever as Kumiko—but it mostly works. It’s a little too cheesy that the little kid Danny rescued in the movie has grown up to become a vice president of the very car company whose business he needs, honestly. But the reconciliation between Danny and Yuji Okumoto’s Chozen lands perfectly.
In particular, it reminds Danny that Miyagi-Do is a Japanese martial art style, and the trick in bringing it to America is to find the balance between the Asian and American philosophies. Cobra Kai is completely twisted by Kreese’s Amurrican glory-in-violence mode. Meanwhile, Johnny’s Eagle Fang occupies a weird middle ground, with some of the macho bullshit from Cobra Kai but preaching a more compassionate ethos than Kreese does. The main difference—and it’s a big one—is that Eagle Fang doesn’t start fights. This is a hugely important tenet of Asian martial arts in general and karate in particular, and one that Kreese’s Cobra Kai doesn’t follow even a little bit. Indeed, Cobra Kai is a little too cartoonishly evil this season, with them stealing the money that Miyagi-Do raised for Miguel’s hospital bills and breaking into the LaRusso house and other criminal acts.
Worse, though, is that we get a bunch of flashbacks to Kreese’s youth in the late 1960s, winding up in Vietnam and how it formed the person he became, mostly in the person of his commanding officer, played with mustache-twirling capital-E Evilness by Terry Serpico. It’s an attempt to make us understand Kreese better, and possibly even feel sorry for him, but it doesn’t work.
Speaking of things that don’t work, we have Miguel’s recovery. While Xolo Maridueña remains brilliant in the role, and he sells Miguel’s anguish, his physical recovery is a hundred percent unconvincing. I have no trouble with him re-learning how to walk. I have huge amounts of trouble with the extent of his recovery. Still, this isn’t just a Cobra Kai problem: fiction in general and TV shows and movies in particular tend toward either instant death or 100% recovery with no middle ground, even though middle ground is what most people who are injured occupy.
What does work, however, is another character brought in from the movies: Elisabeth Shue’s Ali. The reunion among Johnny, Danny, and Ali, with Danny’s wife Amanda along for the ride, is an absolute delight. Ali’s presence helps Danny and Johnny to realize that, at least in relation to each other, they haven’t grown up, and they need to. They have more in common than they realize, and Ali—as the ex they both have in common—personifies it. Shue is magnificent, as always, and her presence lights up the entire show.
Not every beat works, and the show still slides into melodrama way too often, but it overall works on most levels. The understanding of martial arts is strong, and the showcasing of the different ways that different styles approach karate helps provide texture for the series. The acting is uniformly excellent, particularly from Ralph Macchio and William Zabka as Danny and Johnny. In particular, the two of them together are comedy gold, as the best scenes in the season are early on when they’re looking for Robby and later in the season when they’re reunited with Ali at the country club.
This gives me hope for season four, as this season ends with Johnny and Danny deciding to ally against Cobra Kai, bringing Miyagi-Do and Eagle Fang together, setting up a big confrontation in season four. This means lots more of Danny-Johnny banter in season four, and I am definitely up for that.
Let’s hope they bring Aisha back for it…
Cobra Kai is available on Netflix.
[Note: As it happens, Aisha does return in season four, but only for one scene. It’s great to see her, but she should fucking well be back permanently. Sigh.]
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…
Yondan promotion essay by Keith R.A. DeCandido
In 2004, I was 35 years old, living in Riverdale with my girlfriend Terri. My writing career was going quite well—that particular year, I had a USA Today best-selling Star Trek novel, the first novel in my original fantasy series Dragon Precinct, and two movie novelizations all published, as well as a couple of short stories and an essay or three. Most of my income derived from writing, though I also did some freelance editorial work. My cell phone was a Motorola flip-phone, and I spent a great deal of time at Palumbo Bakery with my laptop doing my writing. I hadn’t owned a car in twelve years.
And on the 20th of September of that year, I walked into our dojo for the first time and took a white-belt class.
Seventeen years later, I’m 52 years old, living in Woodlawn Heights with my wife Wrenn. My writing career is still going well, though the face of it has changed considerably. My per-year income from writing has actually gone down in the last seventeen years, and I’ve had to diversify, with writing for a pop-culture web site and teaching karate to kids supplementing the fiction writing and editing income. We now own two cars (I have no idea how that happened, really). I have a Samsung smartphone that has more computing power than the laptop that I used to take to Palumbo Bakery—which has since shut down, and these days I do most of my writing in my home office in any event.
And on the 10th of November of this year, I will walk into our dojo again as a white belt, this time with the hope of starting my journey to yondan.
In many ways, I’m the same person who walked into the dojo seventeen years ago. My personality hasn’t really changed all that much. I’m still a generally happy and optimistic person. A dear friend once said something that I still consider words to live by: “pessimism is a misuse of imagination.” I’m still a writer of science fiction and fantasy. My circle of closest friends has been pretty much the same since the mid-1990s. I still love to travel and go to museums and zoos and botanical gardens. I still love baseball and comic books and TV shows and movies.
And in many ways, I’m completely different. While the circle of friends is pretty much the same, it’s not completely, and there are people who I thought were friends for life in 2004 to whom I don’t speak anymore in 2021. In 2004, I would have identified myself primarily as a writer of Star Trek fiction (and it still makes up a huge chunk of my bibliography), but that is no longer the case. And instead of being Terri’s live-in boyfriend, I’m now Wrenn’s husband.
But the biggest change, and the one that still freaks me out a little bit, is that, prior to 2004, I never considered myself physically strong. I was never athletic, didn’t really do sports, and considered exercise to be this weird thing that health nuts and athletes did, but certainly not for me.
Obviously, that part has changed considerably. Now I’m the guy who lifts the heavy things, who carries all the groceries, who hauls the laundry up the stairs and the garbage and recycling down them, and so on. When my septuagenarian parents need something physical done, I’m the one they call on. (Well, sometimes. My 75-year-old father is stubborn and delusional about his own physical capabilities more often than not…)
The black-belt application that Shuseki Shihan Paul has us fill out before these promotions includes writing down the dates that you got each kyu promotion, and going through those dates was particularly eye-opening, especially with regards to the subject of this essay. Mainly because the arc of my deteriorating relationship with Terri tracks almost perfectly with my rise through the color-belt ranks.
May 2005 was when I achieved my blue belt, and got to shift from the white-belt class to the color-belt class. That same month, Terri and I had a particularly vicious argument that almost resulted in our breakup. And, honestly, looking back, it should have resulted in our breakup. But I can be very stubborn, and I don’t like to fail. That same stubbornness that kept me coming back to the dojo those first few months at the end of 2004 when every pushup was purest agony and comprehension of the techniques was often elusive also made me determined to make things work with Terri.
In August 2005, Terri and I took a trip to Scotland and Ireland. It started as a great trip, and ended that way, too, but in the middle we had another huge argument that nearly torpedoed the relationship, and might have done if we weren’t an ocean away from home at the time. The weekend after we returned to New York, I got my advanced blue belt.
In a fit of madness, Terri and I decided in early 2008 to get married in the summer of that year—right around when I got my brown belt. We postponed the wedding, and finally broke up in the spring of 2009.
The year 2009 turned out to be quite momentous. For starters, I turned forty. In April, Terri and I realized that this was never going to work, and we split up. In addition, 2008 ended with the editor I did most of my Star Trek fiction writing for being laid off (along with a third of the publisher’s staff—this was right after the market crash in the fall of 2008), and suddenly that particular well of work dried up, as his successor evinced no interest in hiring me. In May of that year, I met Wrenn, and we started dating the following month. In July, I was the subject of a comedy roast for charity at a science fiction convention in Maryland, which was a great (and hilarious) honor bestowed up on my by my colleagues, and later that month, the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers presented me with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
And in October 2009, I was awarded my shodan.
Being a black belt has been such a critical part of my self-image over the past twelve years that it’s easy now to forget what a big deal it was for Shuseki Shihan Paul to tie that belt on me in the fall of 2009. And it was the culmination of a year that was full of so much change in my life, though every micron of it was for the better.
The Keith who walked into the dojo in September 2004 could not possibly have imagined the notion of being called Senpai Keith. Indeed, the concept of me as a black belt didn’t even occur to me as a possibility until my advanced green belt promotion (the first promotion that involved sparring). Certainly the Keith who was told by his doctor in the fall of 2004 that he should consider regular exercise would never have seen a black belt in his future…
One other big change between who I was in 2004 and who I am in 2021 is in how I describe myself. Back then, it would have been as a writer, editor, and musician. Now, I can add teacher to that list. I have taught classes to kids and adults in the dojo, as well as private lessons with individuals, plus since 2014 I’ve been teaching karate to kids as part of an afterschool programs in upper Manhattan.
Being a writer is something I’ve always wanted to be, ever since I was six years old and put together a “book” on construction paper called Reflections in My Mirror. Being an editor is something I discovered in college, and was how I made my living for the first eight years after I graduated until my writing career took off. Being a musician is something that has also been part of my life since I was a small child, and while I’ve never made significant money at it, it’s also been a part of who I am for as long as I can remember.
But being a teacher was new. That was never something I expected to be doing or even necessarily thought I’d be good at. And it’s become one of my favorite things—both about being a black belt and about being a person. I absolutely adore teaching, as it has brought me a fulfillment I never expected, and truly enjoy.
In so many ways, the Keith DeCandido who walked into the dojo in September 2004 is the same guy who’s going for his yondan this week. In so many other ways, I’m not remotely the same person in the least.
But I can say this for sure: I liked who I was seventeen years ago, but I like the person I am now a great deal more, and my journey as a karateka is a big part of why that’s so.
The last three days of the black belt promotion were an insane blur. Friday night, me, Charles, and Gordy did kata and self-defense. It went very very well, full of great energy. Then we talked about our essays. (I’ll post mine later this week.)
I then went home and slept as much as I possibly could, because Saturday from 6pm to Sunday at 6am, Charles and I would be in the dojo basically reviewing everything. It was an entire karate life in twelve hours: kata (in every possible permutation), self-defense, combinations, fighting drills, and so on. Plus we did a ton of other exercises, like bag work and pushups and ab workouts and other stuff. And lots more besides — we were there twelve hours. (Don’t worry, we paused every two hours for a water and bathroom break.)
It ended with an hour of meditation, just sitting in the dark with only a candle for illumination.
After that, we got to go home and sleep — for two hours. *laughs* The final bit of the promotion is sparring. That started at 9.30. Gordy was back for that to earn his shodan while Charles and I were exhausted but rarin’ to go. We did twenty two-minute rounds of fighting against seven different black belts — including a couple who hadn’t been in the dojo for a while. Best of all, is Charles’s daughter, Tracey, who made it to second-degree black belt in our dojo before moving out of state. But she flew back for this — without telling her old man, so her showing up at the dojo was a total surprise. It was beautifully done.
Senpai Tracey was also, as it happens, my last fight, and she fought me very hard and well. My first fight was against Senpai Cliff, who was very much my mentor in the earliest days of my white belt saga. And, just like in my sandan promotion, Senpai Harley swept my leg and I fell on my butt.
And then Shuseki Shihan tied my belt on me. You can see it in the picture above: four stripes. I now officially have the title of “Sensei.” After years of teaching, I now have a title that actually means “teacher” in Japanese.
I may or may not have more to say on the subject as time goes by, but for now I’m sore and exhausted and exhilarated. I drove home from the dojo after the fighting playing music really loud and singing along with the window down, and then Wrenn took me to the Bronx Burger House for a desperately needed lunch. Then I took a huge nap.
Gonna take it easy tonight. Tomorrow, there’s a final workout with the entire dojo (everything up to now has been black belts only) followed by a huge celebration at a local Japanese restaurant.
It has been a joy and a privilege to go on this martial arts journey, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s only just begun. There’s lots more to go. And huge kudos to Sensei Charles and Senpai Gordy, who showed tremendous spirit and heart.
Charles and I have completed two of the five things we have to do for our promotion to yondan, a.k.a. fourth-degree black belt, a.k.a. sensei.
Wednesday night, the two of us and Gordy, who is an advanced brown belt going for his shodan, or first degree, went over basics: punches, kicks, blocks, stances, combinations. We all did very well, showed good spirit, good form, good knowledge of the material. The only hiccup Charles or I had was when we were doing sai combinations, and those were more practical issues: he was sweating so much he was having trouble gripping the sais, and the point of the sais kept almost getting caught in my uniform sleeve. But we fought through that.
The only other hiccup was when Shuseki asked the fateful question of Gordy, “What’s your favorite kick?” This question is a trap. *laughs* Because the next thing you do is one hundred of the type of kick you answered. Gordy fell into the trap, because he answered the question literally with back-spinning hook kick, a kick that involves a 360-degree turn. (Here’s an example of the kick.)
They say that some mistakes are opportunities, and this was certainly the case here. While Gordy realized his tactical error, the three of us then gamely did one hundred back-spinning hook kicks (alternating which leg does the kick every ten kicks, which ameliorated dizziness issues). It was amazing, stunning, and now I can tell the grandchildren I’ll never have that I did a hundred back-spinning hook kicks once.
That was a fantastic, if unexpected, way to end a strong first night of promotion.
Charles and I then went home to try to get some sleep, as we were to meet Shuseki at Elk Pen Parking Lot at 4am. Charles picked me up at 3am and we drove up there to meet Shuseki, who then drove us to Bear Mountain Inn. That’s the start of the Appalachian Trail, and we were to hike on the AT from Bear Mountain Inn to where Charles left his car. That’s 25 miles of actual hiking, which includes going over four mountains — Bear Mountain, West Mountain, Black Mountain, and Island Pond Mountain — plus up and down bunches of other hills, and going through the Lemon Squeezer (a rather tight rock formation).
Usually that hike is done by black-belt candidates in 13-15 hours or so. Charles and I did it in 11, partly because we were chasing daylight. Normally, these promotions are done in March or October, but thanks to pandemic-related stuffs, this one was put off to November, where the days are much shorter. So we set a brisk pace, took no real breaks (pauses for things like relieving ourselves and to switch clothing around, but that’s it). Shuseki left us at the top of the AT at 4.51am, and we walked back into the Elk Pen Parking Lot at 3.51pm.
It was a glorious experience, and while I’m achy today, I’m thrilled with how it went. It was absolutely beautiful, too. We got to the top of Bear Mountain just as the sun was starting to come up (see picture above), and the views were just stunning. I’ll put up more pictures down the line, but here’s one more I particularly loved, where we could see the Manhattan skyline from atop Black Mountain:
Tonight is Day 3, where the three of us do kata and self-defense, and also discuss our essays. This is always my favorite part of a black-belt promotion, whether my own or someone else’s, as kata is what I love best in karate.
Gotta do this in honor of my black-belt promotion…..